The Art of the Sonnet

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Few poetic forms have found more uses than the sonnet in English, and none is now more recognizable. It is one of the longest-lived of verse forms, and one of the briefest. A mere fourteen lines, fashioned by intricate rhymes, it is, as Dante Gabriel Rossetti called it, "a moment's monument." From the Renaissance to the present, the sonnet has given poets a superb vehicle for private contemplation, introspection, and the expression of passionate feelings and thoughts.

The Art of the Sonnet collects one hundred exemplary sonnets of the English language (and a few sonnets in translation), representing highlights in the history of the sonnet, accompanied by short commentaries on each of the poems. The commentaries by Stephen Burt and David Mikics offer new perspectives and insights, and, taken together, demonstrate the enduring as well as changing nature of the sonnet. The authors serve as guides to some of the most-celebrated sonnets in English as well as less-well-known gems by nineteenth- and twentieth-century poets. Also included is a general introductory essay, in which the authors examine the sonnet form and its long and fascinating history, from its origin in medieval Sicily to its English appropriation in the sixteenth century to sonnet writing today in the United States, the United Kingdom, and other English-speaking parts of the world.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The sonnet may well be the poetic form that most often comes to mind when anyone thinks of poetry. Fourteen lines long, in open and closed structures, sonnets have been prominent over the past 400 years of poetic history. In this unusual book—half anthology, half collection of essays—Burt and Mikics, both prolific critics of poetry (Burt is also a poet himself) choose 100 sonnets and for each offer a thoughtful, scholarly, though highly accessible commentary. The oldest poem is Thomas Wyatt's “Whoso List to Hunt” (1557), and the newest is by the contemporary poet D.A. Powell, first published last year. In between, there's everything from Shakespeare and Wordsworth to Robert Lowell and Lucie Brock-Broido. Of “Redemption,” George Herbert's sonnet about the Resurrection of Christ, Mikics writes, “Herbert's Savior... shocks us into attention.” Of one of Ted Berrigan's sonnets, Burt says, “The disorientation, the wildness, is part of the point: no more organized poem would do.” While this anthology would make a wonderful textbook for a prosody class, its best audience may be anyone who wants to delve deeply into the heart of poetry. Learnéd as well as passionate, this book is a delight. (Apr.)
Willard Spiegelman
Burt and Mikics have a ravishing breadth of taste and understanding. Their capaciousness allows the sonnet greater variety than its enemies (who think it old-fashioned, retrograde, and reactionary) would allow. A literary tour de force.
Harold Bloom
Burt and Mikics have gathered together and composed a marvelous book. Both of them give us profound commentaries on particular sonnets and on the genre. I know of no other recent book that so steadily illuminates the riches it invokes.
Boston Globe - Wen Stephenson
Stephen Burt and David Mikics give us a carefully selected set of 100 sonnets, spanning 1557 to 2009, each with a compact companion essay. Their aim is to present "a partial history of the sonnet form." But that puts it too modestly. With their selection of poems and their (mostly) compelling essays, Burt and Mikics manage to give a vivid sense of the sonnet in English as a living, organic thing, interconnected and evolving through time...It's the essays that really distinguish this volume...Many of these essays are models of how to write about a poem, especially one centuries old. If you like to get under the hood of a poem and poke around at its inner mechanics, to see what makes it go, then the more technical parts of these essays won't disappoint. But they're not just technical: They strike an appealing balance of historical, biographical, and textual analysis, while remaining, for the most part, accessible.
Books & Culture - Lauren Winner
Newcomers to poetry and longtime readers alike will find this a rich and rewarding volume.
Sydney Morning Herald - Andrew Riemer
[A] handsome collection of 100 sonnets...It is to the credit of the compilers of this fine anthology that they manage to mount persuasive (and mercifully jargon-free) arguments that even poems as idiosyncratic as [Les Murray's] "Strangler Fig" reflect the venerable and seemingly inexhaustible traditions of the sonnet. - Jeannie Vanasco
The editors...[have] collected one hundred enjoyable sonnets reaching back to Thomas Wyatt and George Gascoigne, and meanwhile, providing a thorough introduction and thoroughly astute commentary on each sonnet. I can't begin to tell you how much I appreciate this as a reader.
London Review of Books - Colin Burrow
Burt and Mikics write two or three pages about each of [the] poems, and mostly these are clear and patient guides to rhythm and form, allusions, their relations to the lives of their authors...They say just the right thing to make their readers turn back to the poems.
Choice - G. W. Clift
This is a volume of poetry and criticism that a nonspecialist could read front to back with real pleasure.
Harvard Magazine - Adam Kirsch
Innovative and intelligent...All poetry can be seen as a conversation between poets over time. In The Art of the Sonnet, the little room of the sonnet serves as an echo chamber and amplifier, allowing us to hear those voices--great and small, living and dead--more clearly than ever.
Library Journal
Burt (English, Harvard) and Mikics (English, Univ. of Houston) have written an illuminating text that promises many hours of reading pleasure and greater understanding of this poetic form. They begin with an essay that covers the history of the sonnet and highlights many outstanding examples, while also explaining how and why these were selected. The authors then proceed to analyze 100 examples, with each writing an essay on 50 of the 100 sonnets. One of the most valuable aspects of this book is that many of the sonnets are not famous, or even well known. The authors have deliberately given the reader a broad selection, beginning with the 1557 sonnet "Whoso list to hunt" by Thomas Wyatt and ending with the 2009 work "corydon & alexis, redux" by D.A. Powell. These 100 give the reader the opportunity to see how the sonnet form has evolved throughout the centuries, as well as discovering sonnets that may have been ignored or "lost" and explaining why they should be given greater notice now. The essays on each sonnet are illuminating and wide ranging. VERDICT The writing here is clear and inspiring; recommended for all literature collections.—Susan L. Peters, Univ. of Texas, Galveston
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674048140
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 4/30/2010
  • Pages: 464
  • Sales rank: 1,420,183
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Stephen Burt is Professor of English at Harvard.

David Mikics is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston.

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